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No mandate for either Mitt Romney or President Obama (+ video)

Mitt Romney and President Obama want a strong mandate from voters to support their governing approach. They won't get it. Given the enormity of America's challenges, it might not be such a bad thing if the winner of this election emerged with humility instead of hubris.

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Both expanded their parties’ congressional majorities and both had bold policy ideas: Social Security reform for the younger Bush, health-care reform for Obama.

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Yet both came to grief. To use the presidents’ own words, Republicans took a “thumping” in the 2006 midterm, and Democrats got a “shellacking” in 2010. There were multiple reasons for these outcomes, one of which was that Bush and Obama had read too much into their own victories.

Elections are blunt instruments. The only thing that the raw numbers tell us for sure is that the voters prefer one candidate to another. They don’t tell us who likes what about the winner or who dislikes what about the loser, although polls give us some clues.

So even when winning candidates have been specific on certain issues, it does not necessarily follow that their success stemmed from those issues. Bush thought that the voters were licensing him to push private accounts for Social Security. Obama assumed that they would like the health-care bill. Public opinion polls showed that both leaders were wrong, and their parties paid the price.

Ironically, supporters of bipartisan compromise might hope that the election does not produce a presidential mandate. Presidents who think that they have carte blanche may stiff-arm the other party. Those who understand that their position is tentative may reach out for help. Bill Clinton came to office with just 43 percent of the vote, and his party suffered historic losses in the 1994 midterm election. Yet with approving votes from Republicans, his administration produced a balanced budget, welfare reform, and the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Granted, today’s circumstances are very different from those of the early 1990s. The economic problems are tougher, and partisan polarization is much more advanced. Yet it might not be such a bad thing if the winner of this election emerged with humility instead of hubris.

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker Professor of American Politics at Claremont McKenna College and coauthor of "American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship."

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